It’s hard to escape it. Everything is so fast-paced these days and there are so many demands for our attention and time at home, at work and online. It’s thought we process 34 gigabytes of data through our brains each day, around 105,000 words absorbed through emails, the internet and other sources. It’s no wonder we sometimes struggle to cope.
And we do struggle; in 2013, the mental health charity MIND reported that 34 per cent of people surveyed said that work was either quite or very stressful. Last year the HSE reported that 12.5 million work days were lost due to stress and it was recently reported that stress affects one in five of the working population.
What if that last statistic was wrong? I’m going to argue that stress affects five in five of the working population and in fact, the population as a whole. It’s an inescapable part of life; in fact, it’s essential to your survival and needed to get you out of bed in the morning.
Just what is stress?
A very clever man named Hans Selye once defined it as:
“the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”
Simply, it’s the changes brought about by something new that we’re not used to. As he rightly points out, these changes aren’t specific; they’re unique to the individual. Some of the changes are physical, some psychological and often we experience both. Here’s a short-list of just some of the possible changes that can occur in a stressful situation.
- Increased heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate
- Dizziness and fainting
- Pins and needles
- Tight, achey muscles
- Unable to sleep
- Inability to switch off
- Changes in appetite
- Difficulty making decisions
- Mood swings
- Loss of interest in activities and withdrawal
There are many more and that’s what makes it challenging to diagnose and treat; we all get stressed in different ways.
Good and bad stress
How can any of the changes above be good? Well, let’s give you a simple example. You’re sat at your desk one day when a hungry lion, recently escaped from the zoo, wanders in. At this point, your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure increase, as do levels of stress hormones, firing you into action so that you can run away and hide in the store cupboard. Stress can be a real life-saver.
The word stress comes from the Latin word ‘stringere’, meaning to draw tight or put something under tension or pressure. We all need a little pressure in our lives as that’s what brings about change. Exercise is the prime example; your heart only gets stronger when you challenge it with a run, bike ride, Zumba, Insanity, walk up the stairs, spot of gardening or whatever takes your fancy. Your skeletal muscles only get stronger when you challenge them with weights, Pilates, gigantic elastic bands or heavy shopping. In fitness, it’s known as the principle of overload, or as I like to say…no challenge, no change.
Equally, in life, we need a challenge. Ever had a job that was so easy it was stressful? What did you do? You went and sought out a tougher job to get a bit more stress in your life, because you knew it would be good for you.
This good stress is known as Eustress, and, as always in life, this is balanced out by the bad stuff, which is termed Distress.
Distress occurs when stress takes us beyond our ability to cope, or rather sometimes, our perceived ability to cope. It may actually be that there is a way to cope; we just can’t see it at the present time.
Our clever chap Hans Selye, who we mentioned earlier, identified three clear stages to stress, which he called his General Adaptation Syndrome or GAS for short.
1) Alarm – our initial reaction to a stress. This might be a sudden increase in workload, or the lion entering the office, which leaves us with any combination of the signs and symptoms discussed earlier.
2) Adaptation OR Resistance – Stage 2 is pivotal. We may discover a way to adapt to the new circumstance; maybe we can shift our working day around to fit in the work or discuss with our line manager that it can’t be done to the deadline being requested and agree a new date or get someone else in to help, or in the case of the lion, we run into the store cupboard, close the door and phone for help. At this point, the stress levels reduce.
If we don’t do this however, that’s when resistance occurs, which essentially means we don’t find a way to adapt.
3) Exhaustion - The lack of adaptation means the stress continues over time and that’s when the changes we’ve talked about become an issue; for example, blood pressure stays higher, our appetite is increased causing weight gain or our lack of sleep affects our mental and physical state and ultimately, our health.
It’s vital to say here that what classes as eustress and distress is unique to everyone. Some people find a certain job, workload, task or process highly stressful, whilst another absolutely loves it. It’s why sometimes people find it hard to empathise with other’s stress; ‘but I do that job and it’s absolutely fine.’ That really isn’t the point here.
What can we do about bad stress?
Essentially there are three things we can do to lessen the likelihood of distress and deal with it better when it occurs:
1) Increase our resilience to stress
2) Decrease the amount of stress placed upon us
3) Distract ourselves from the stress or learn to see it in a different light
Resilience – here we build up our minds and bodies to be able to cope with more stress before it becomes distress. Imagine your body as a drinking glass, and stress the water that you pour in. The aim is to turn it from a small tumbler into a pint glass, able to cope with more fluids before it spills over. If you can increase your reservoir, you have the capacity to deal with more stress without being negatively affected.
We can make both our minds and bodies more resilient to stress; here are just a few ways:
• Exercise – there are so many benefits of exercise for stress management. Your heart is stronger and healthier and more able to cope when placed under pressure, moderate intensity activity helps to control levels of stress hormones, it can act as a distraction from work and life, socialising with others whilst doing it is known to reduce stress and getting outdoors, particularly into green space or around water is a proven way to reduce stress levels.
• Healthy eating – certain foods and drinks can help with stress management. Reducing caffeine and swapping for herbal teas like chamomile or Rooibos is a particularly powerful technique, as is ensuring you get all the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other plant nutrients you need. This helps to keep your immune system on top form as it’s known that stress is particularly potent when it comes to lowering your body’s natural defences. If you can get your 5-a-day that’s fantastic; if not can you simply increase your intake by one or two above where you are now?
• Sleep – another powerful protector of your immune system, sleep is when your body repairs, recovers and files away the day’s stresses and challenges. It also helps regulate your mood, meaning you often find it easier to cope with stressful situations. Look to go to bed a little earlier, ensure the environment is calm, quiet and cool, and if you have stresses on your mind, attempt to wind down from them at least an hour before bedtime with a hobby or something more relaxing; music, reading, puzzles, it doesn’t matter so long as it works for you. Some find writing down tasks for tomorrow or current concerns helpful, as it means they won’t forget about them tomorrow but don’t need to deal with them now.
• Psychological techniques – there’s been a boom in recent years in tools and techniques to help us manage stress. Mindfulness, meditation and relaxation are all hot stuff right now and that’s because many people find them to be powerful tools.
Here are a few simple tools you can try:
Progressive relaxation – this is my go to technique. Sit somewhere quiet, just for a few minutes. Begin by taking a few deep breaths, then starting at your toes, tense the muscles for a second or two and then focus on letting them relax completely. Repeat the process for your calf muscles, thighs, hips, core muscles and all the way up to your shoulders, neck and even face. You’ll be amazed how much more chilled you feel by the end.
Count your breaths – another one that’s quick and easy to do. Sit or lie somewhere comfortable, although you can do this stood in a queue for your lunch or in the post office too. Breathe out through your mouth for a count of eight, pause briefly then in through your nose for four. Repeat for around 60 seconds.
Mindfulness – there are numerous mindfulness techniques; this one is great as it can be done anywhere. When you feel yourself getting stressed, pause and just focus on the things around you at present. Look away from your laptop or phone and work through your senses, noticing three things you can see around you at present, three you can hear, smell, touch and even taste. It’s a great little distractor to bring you back to the present.
Affirmations – I often notice how my clients are their own biggest critics, but during our conversation, I’ve noticed a range of things that seem to be going extremely well. It’s easy to focus on the negatives and leave ourselves feeling stressed and down. When this happens, get a piece of paper and make a list – what have I done well today or this week? Give yourself some praise for these things and sometimes things feel a little better.
There are of course other tools and techniques you can use; here’s a link to a fantastic website with a whole host of others for you: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/stress/developing-resilience/#.WnReFq10dp8
Decreasing the amount of stress we’re under
This bit is all about taking stock; asking ourselves ‘can I do all of that in that time-frame?’ or ‘am I taking on too much?’
If the answer is yes, here’s some stuff you should consider:
• Do I need to have a conversation with my boss, colleagues, partner, friend or other person who can act as support crew about it? As Bob Hoskins once said, it’s good to talk and it often leads to solutions that can decrease our stress load
• Look at where else we can reduce stress. I know when I’m super busy that trying to push myself really hard in exercise sessions doesn’t help. I need to work out for my sanity, but long runs, heavy weights and tough intervals are replaced by low-intensity, shorter workouts to help me stay balanced without becoming completely worn out. And to prove that I sometimes get this wrong, last week I was very busy with work and then at the weekend I decided to lift the heaviest weights I've done for some time and run the furthest I've gone in ages; result? I now have a cold. Well...man-flu and we all know how bad that can be! ;-)
• Always remember that change is possible – we’re never really stuck in a situation. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to change but there’s likely something that can be done to make it better.
• Ask for help. Reaching out to someone, be it a medical practitioner, counsellor, manager, colleague or friend, is not a weakness, it’s a strength. And it’s the first step in reducing our stress levels.
Distraction and reframing
One of the reasons exercise is thought to be a great tool to combat stress is that it takes your mind off it. Whilst you're thinking about getting enough air into your lungs, making it up that hill, lifting that weight or getting that ball back, it's hard to also think about work deadlines and finances. It offers an escape.
And there are other escape tools too; yoga, tai chi, meditation, listening to music, reading a book, socialising with friends, taking the dog for a walk, stroking your favourite pet, playing games; it really is whatever works for you.
There are of course less healthy distractions like smoking and alcohol. Don't get me wrong; they work to distract you from the stress but at the same time they add physical stress to your body so they aren't ideal long-term solutions.
Reframing is the art of looking at something in a different way. Think about these two words:
The first is often thought of as being negative, whilst the second more positive, but they can actually mean the same thing. If you see a workload as a challenge then it's something you want to conquer and might actually enjoy whilst doing so. Are there any stresses in your life that you could reframe? Thinking about them in a different way may make a surprising difference to their impact on you.
Important points to stress
1) Can you build your resilience to be able to better cope with the stresses you face?
2) Can you reduce the amount of stress you are under?
3) Can you find a way to distract yourself or see the stress in a different light?
Doing just one of these may help you to find a little more balance.